“A General Theory of Love,” by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon
Every book, if it is anything at all, is an argument: an articulate arrow of words, fledged and notched and newly anointed with sharpened stone, speeding through paragraphs to its shimmering target. This book–as it elucidates the shaping power or parental devotion, the biological reality of romance, the healing force of communal connection–argues for love. Turn the page, and the arrow is loosed. The heart it seeks is your own.
Not my words, unfortunately (would that I could write so well), but the concluding paragraph of the introduction to this extraordinarily well-crafted book on the neurophysiology and developmental psychology of human bonding. As someone who teaches meditation practices that augment our powers of connectedness I was fascinated to come across this distillation of the latest understanding of how love emerges and functions, but even more I was delighted by the beauty of the writing.
Drs. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon — all professors of psychiatry at the UCSF School of Medicine — look at the evolution of the human brain and convincingly demonstrate that an ability to sense the emotions of others is an inborn faculty of all mammals, including (of course) ourselves. They show how this connectedness shapes the very structure of the brain (not to mention our lives) and influences the body on the level of cellular chemistry: without human touch, for example, the immune response of young children falters and they simply die. They build their case in gripping detail, somehow managing to weave the clinical results of scientific studies into the fabric of their breathtakingly elegant prose. This arrow is well-crafted indeed: not only useful but ornamental.
The arrow of the text is aimed not only at our hearts, but at western society’s (and especially America’s) emotional dysfunction, with a thorough, if somewhat sweeping, analysis of the “reptilian” nature of modern corporations, which are frequently incapable of reciprocating to the bond that workers develop with them over years of effort; a critique of the curious assumption that parenting is something to be squeezed in to what little time remains after work; and an insiders look at the warped healthcare system that exists in the US, where Health Management Organizations (corporations with both eyes on the bottom line) rather than doctors decide on what treatments a patience can receive.
The authors make a strong case that it is the future of our very humanness that is at stake when our society ignores the emotional basis of the brain and overlooks how loving bonds quite literally shape the structure of our neuronal connections. When we neglect the emotional fabric of our society the individuals that society produces are no longer completely human.
The authors are convinced that the sometimes self-defeating neural pathways laid down in early life in the brain under the influence of malformed relationships can be rerouted. Old habits can be changed and the structure of the brain itself can be reinvented. Although as psychiatrists their primary model for neural realignment is therapy, it has been shown in scientific studies that pathways in the brain can be rewired through meditation as well.
But the overall message of the book is not hopeful. There are vast forces at work in modern society that ignore the importance of human relatedness in the ongoing quest from greater efficiency at work and in healthcare, and few signs that these trends are being much acknowledged as problems, never mind corrected. One can only hope that the powerful case the authors make for the importance of relatedness in the shaping of happy healthy human beings will provide a wake-up call and encourage us to value the heart as much as we do our intellects.